"Back before Johnny Cash had ever recorded anything, when he was selling vacuum cleaners for a living, I had a show on KWAM on which somebody could pay $15 to do 15 minutes. Johnny would come on and do his 15 minutes and then finish off by giving his number and telling the audience to call him up to get him to come by their house and do a vacuum cleaner demonstration. Can you believe it?"
-- Memphis deejay George Klein
When Sam Phillips, the legendary founder of Sun Records and godfather of rock-and-roll, died back in August, a memorial tribute was arranged for him at Memphis' brand-new Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. Jack Clement, a producer famous in Memphis and Nashville and an intimate of Johnny Cash's in both places, began his tribute to Sam by playing a duet with country star Marty Stuart of Cash's "Ballad of a Teen-Age Queen," a vintage '50s tune done by Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two for Phillips at Sun.
"Sam hated it," joked Clement, but as he and Stuart did their reenactment of the homespun melody with its deceptively simple lyrics, direct in the way of an Emily Dickinson poem, it was easy to tell that Phillips had to have loved it -- loved it, in fact, for the same reason the whole world would eventually come to love Johnny Cash.
"Johnny didn't like the sparkly, rhinestone stuff. That's one reason he dressed as 'the man in black.' He was more poetic, a simple, down-to-earth kind of guy," remembers Roland Janes, the brilliant session guitarist who worked at Sun when Cash, a shy Air Force veteran from Dyess, Arkansas, was getting his start. "In those early days, he wanted to be a gospel singer, then he thought of himself as country and western. He didn't really think of himself as rock-and-roll. The world determined that for him."
At the time of the Phillips tribute, Cash, who was in ill health himself, was still mourning the death in May of his wife June Carter Cash. He couldn't come to the Memphis memorial, but he recorded his personal reminiscences of Phillips and gave the CD to Clement, who made sure it got played on stage in Memphis. Cash's unaffected Everyman basso enthralled the audience as he recollected his awe at getting started at Sun.
"I got in that 1954 Plymouth Savoy, and, as fast as it would go, I went downtown to 706 Union Avenue, to Sun Records," Cash recalled. There, Phillips handed him a single copy of the "bright shiny vinyl record with that bright shiny golden Sun label on it, with my name in black. It stood out for all the world to see. It said 'Johnny Cash.' It was the first time I ever saw my name in print. Nobody called me Johnny except my wife, and I had no idea that Sam was going to put "Johnny" on the record. I thought it was going to be "John," but that was all right. Just so it was my record."
Knox Phillips, the legend's son and a producer in his own right, recalls: "Sam thought he needed a more accessible name, I think. All those guys were frightened to death in the early days. Sam's whole thing was in giving people who were shy like Johnny a voice. He just made sure the name n the label would help Johnny connect."
Cash took the precious possession with his new public name on it down to disc jockey Bob Neal of WMPS-AM. Cash told him, "This is new. It just came out today, and I wonder if you would play it. I sure would like to hear it on the radio." Neal played "Hey, Porter" on the air and then, before he could flip it and play "Cry, Cry, Cry," he dropped it and broke it. "It broke into a million pieces," said Cash. "My heart dropped. I thought my music career was over."
Later he went back over to the Sun studio and told Sam Phillips what had happened. Phillips reassured the stricken young artist. "Don't worry about it," he said and then opened up a box of recordings, showing him there were 24 left out of that original 25. Cash asked why there were so many. "Because I'm going to send these to disc jockeys all over the place -- Shreveport, Mobile, Nashville," Phillips answered. Cash said, "I won't be singing in all those cities." Phillips said, "Yes, you will."
As, of course, he did. And a few other places as well.
For Johnny Cash did connect, unmistakably. After Sam Phillips' death, Cash and Knox Phillips had a private moment on the telephone. Cash said, "I loved your daddy. He taught me the importance of being an individual."
Or as Knox Phillips would put it, "Sam's message was you can go out there and be yourself and be confident and be proud. Without Sam, those guys would have been more prone to be followers. He gave them the confidence to stand up on that stage and be leaders. Of all the Sun artists, including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Charlie Rich, among many others, Johnny best exemplified in deeds and words what was great about being a true individual. There's no finer accomplishment than that. For me, his artistic legacy was exceeded only by his heart, his spirit, and his honor."
By the time Cash got a national TV show in the early '70s as one of the first accepted exemplars of down-home, Southern-style music, some of his early musical stablemates were down on their luck. But, as Knox Phillips remembers, "Johnny always carried people who needed help. He hired Carl Perkins as part of his band and put him on his TV show, out of love. He did the same for Jerry Lee [Lewis]. No matter how down someone might be, or how negative his reputation had become, Johnny always had a 'come-on-in-and-help-yourself' attitude for them."
Jack Clement is unique in that he has known and worked with Cash for nearly 50 years -- on his first recording efforts at Sun in the '50s and on his most recent tracks, yet to be released.
Now a fixture of the Nashville music scene, Clement said some of those unreleased numbers are standards, like "San Antonio Rose." There are also "a Sheryl Crow song or two and some Hawaiian songs."
"As was always the case with him," says Clement, "there's a lot of range. He did one song, 'Aloha,' mostly in Hawaiian."
When he was doing his musical alohas -- for a boxed set as well as a new album, says Clement -- Cash was largely confined to a wheelchair, and the sessions were conducted both in Cash's Nashville home and in his private studio adjacent to the property. "The label had a special doctor working with him," says Clement. "He could walk a little bit, and he could see a little. He was almost blind there for a while. He knew he was old and weak."
For all that, Clement says, "He sounded good. Not as strong as he once was, but good." Cash's eclecticism was one of his hallmarks, of course. It was typical that this late in his life and career, he was willing to try so much new material. As other intimates of Cash have observed, his appeal crossed normal boundaries of age, gender, race, and class.
"He never ran out of stuff to record," says Clement. "Even as a raw young man at Sun, he was always singing a lot of stuff that he never got around to recording -- the Whiffenpoof song, or the Inkspots, or the Mills Brothers."
"He was one of the most famous people in the world, an international icon, a living logo," says Clement. "He had so many songs, so many hits, so many ups and downs. But even in rough circumstances, he was never a somber kind of guy at all. I remember back at Sun one time, he'd been recording so long and hard and drinking so much coffee he said, 'You know, I think I got a little too much blood in my coffee system.'"
Clement was with Cash in May when the singer -- afflicted with the diabetes whose complications were a major cause of his death -- had temporarily moved to a hotel room adjoining the hospital where his wife, June Carter Cash, was dying. Says Clement, "That was hard on him, but he handled it pretty smooth. He was making plans to do more recording of some brand-new stuff while he was attending to her."
In the end, as Clement noted, it was only Cash's own death that could finally bring to a halt the debilitated 71-year-old artist's determination to keep moving and innovating with his music.
Knox Phillips remembers Cash's aesthetic ambitions as being conspicuous from the very start. "Johnny probably used his voice more effectively than any other Sun guy," says Phillips. "Most of them at first -- like Elvis and Jerry Lee -- were song interpreters. But Johnny was a singer-songwriter with a heart. I never heard a bad Johnny Cash record. Later on in his career, it might have had some Nashville suck-ass strings and vanilla added to it, but you can still hear the heart and soul that overshadows all the bullshit. He always overshadowed all the bullshit."
An example of Cash at his best, says Phillips, was the song "Get Rhythm," whose driving, laconic blues riffs and chorus underlie a simple tale about a shoeshine boy able to transcend not only bad times but the human condition itself.
"When he sang about the cotton leaves in 'Hey, Porter,' you could smell 'em yourself," says Janes. He and Knox Phillips both refer to the "poetry" in Cash's songs. Phillips recalls the celebrated collaboration between Cash and Bob Dylan in the late '60s. Cash also collaborated with U2, and his last comeback, the one that was still going on at the time of his death, had him doing well-regarded covers of such acts as Nine Inch Nails, whose song "Hurt" Cash turned into something of a late personal manifesto.
Cash communicated basic American values and also basic American vulnerabilities. He had his own well-documented troubles with drugs. He stuck with his vision, even in his last recordings. "You could tell his voice was weak and his health was failing," Janes says, "but his message was still here. He was doing songs about drugs and addiction. He was, I think, questioning himself."
AS Jerry Lee Lewis was preparing to leave his Nesbitt, Mississippi, home last Friday to fly down to Jacksonville, Florida, for a weekend concert, he was told by his manager, J.W. Whitten, that his friend and old Sun Records stablemate, Johnny Cash, had passed.
Lewis was plainly moved and, after a spell, said somberly to Whitten, "You know, I'm the only one left." What he meant, of course, was that the onetime Sun Big Four of himself, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Cash had now winnowed down to one -- Lewis, an on-the-edge type famous for his reckless self-endangerments. Nobody woulda thunk it.
Lewis stayed absorbed by the subject all day, reminding Whitten of a service performed by Cash for beginner Lewis in 1956, when Cash was already a national star: "You know, Johnny gave me my first major tour." Lewis was also an annual performer on the year-end Christmas shows that Cash did for CBS.
When the Killer nearly died some years ago from complications of a stomach ailment, Cash flew in to be at his bedside. Lewis had been "devastated" by the death in May of Cash's wife, and he was clearly taking Cash's own death very hard.
As Lewis performed before a sellout crowd at the Florida Theater in Jacksonville, he did something that Whitten, who has been with the performer for several decades, had never seen him do before. He stopped his regular concert midway, announced to the crowd that he wanted to play a song in Cash's honor, then did a version of "Vacation in Heaven," a sacred song that he knew to be one of Cash's favorites.
"He represented everybody," says Janes. "He had the sound of all ages, all colors."
Another way of putting that was offered by Memphis lawyer Jim Strickland, who was driving home the other day and happened to have Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" playing in his car. At a red light, a vehicle equipped with thunderous speakers pulsing out hip-hop pulled alongside. Strickland shrugged and turned up Cash as high as it would go. The young bloods in the other car first frowned and then, as they heard the familiar voice of Johnny Cash booming out
When I was just a baby,
My Mama told me, "Son,
Always be a good boy,
Don't ever play with guns."
But I shot a man in Reno,
Just to watch him die,
When I hear that whistle blowin',
I hang my head and cry
they, too, had to smile.
He Walked the Line
Johnny Cash was uncompromising, unafraid, and unbeatable.
BY CHRIS DAVIS
"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." For close to 50 years those four words brought audiences screaming to their feet. Alas, no more. Death has finally claimed "The Man in Black," whose appeal was universal and whose body of work, when all is said and done, may turn out to be more influential than Elvis'. Unlike the King of Rock-and-Roll, who died young, leaving a beautiful corpse, Cash's longevity worked in his favor -- a rare thing in the youth-obsessed world of popular music. He gave us something special: a voice that speaks not to one particular generation or time but to each of the seven stages of man. His artistry was matched in equal measure by an uncompromising sense of justice and an indomitable faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. But his faith was tempered with reality and could be fiercely critical of the world -- and the industry he worked in -- without ever lapsing into bitterness or cynicism.
Johnny Cash had a deep voice, a booming voice, but it was ragged and it could go flat in a hurry. A critic once said that the late Waylon Jennings proved he had balls by singing like someone was squeezing them in a vice. The same was true of Cash. But that big clumsy voice could express more emotion in a single syllable than most singers can wring from an entire song. When Cash sang gospel he could make the staunchest atheist long to believe, because sin never seemed more palpable and salvation never so necessary. And Cash, whose own failures of the flesh were well chronicled, could make believers tremble in awesome certainty of God's all-knowing might. When he sang that crazy hillbilly boogie that made Sun Records famous, his touch could be astonishingly light, his voice as sweet as brown sugar melting in a skillet. When he sang traditional country, he assumed the role of an epic storyteller, reminding us of disasters both natural ("Three Feet High and Rising") and man-made ("San Quentin"). He was equally gifted in comedy ("A Boy Named Sue") and tragedy ("Long Black Veil").
His big voice wavered -- first from the weight of total honesty, later with the effects of disease -- but it never stopped. Musical styles sprang up and burned out, but Cash kept singing the traditional American music he loved. Addiction couldn't stop the songs. Hard times couldn't keep him down. And most important, in spite of the fame that came his way, he never stopped singing for the "poor and the beaten down, living on the hopeless, hungry side of town."
When the 1960s exploded in a kaleidoscope of psychedelic colors, Johnny Cash went into mourning and donned a solemn suit of solid black. He was sympathetic to the hippie protesters who took to the streets to protest the war in Vietnam, to the call for an end to segregation, and to meaningful social change in his beloved land of liberty. But he refused to grow his hair beyond his shoulders like the other country outlaws of his era. He didn't put on a paisley shirt and a peace-sign pendant or dress up in red, white, and blue. He likewise rejected the rhinestone-studded Nudie suits that were de rigueur for honky-tonk heroes of Cash's pedigree. Instead, he became "The Man in Black": a man who lived in a constant state of protest.
If nothing else, it was one hell of a gimmick. Cash owns black like Coke owns red. But it was more than that. Nothing about Cash was ever insincere. In "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," he tells the true story of a poor Pima Indian who became a war hero only to die drunk and abandoned in an America that had little use for redskins, or brownskins, or blackskins, or any skin that wasn't pale. In "Sunday Morning Coming Down," he sings about a man's day-to-day struggles with addiction and profound loneliness. In his over-the-top cover of Leonard Cohen's "The Mercy Seat," he addresses the awfulness of capital punishment. And this is just scratching the surface. Cash's body of work, taken as a whole, serves as an astute critique of the modern American condition.
Of course, Cash's tunes aren't all gloom and doom. "Ring of Fire," a song penned by his wife June Carter Cash, describes the utter helplessness that is part and parcel of love in full bloom. "Jackson," an up-tempo duet with June, tells the rollicking tale of what happens to youngsters when the fire of lust turns cold after the wedding and wandering eyes turn to wandering ways. And then there are novelty songs like "One Piece at a Time," which tells the story of an autoworker who can't afford to buy the product he makes so, one piece at a time, he smuggles a Cadillac out of the factory in his lunch box. On the surface it seems like a harmless goof, but it speaks directly to the humbling absurdities of working class life: The worker's "brand-new" Cadillac is a hodgepodge of makes and models, with a single tailfin, two headlights on one side, and one on the other. It's a loving metaphor for the cobbled-together life of America's resourceful working class.
In later years, as Cash performed songs by punk/metal maestro Glenn Danzig and covered tunes by Nine Inch Nails, it seemed as though his image was being exploited. The man who wore black on principle was being marketed to kids who wore black because they thought it was cool. But regardless of the motive, each of Cash's American recordings brought him a small army of new fans -- without the benefit of extensive radio play or the support of the Nashville music industry.
"Oh I'd love to wear a rainbow every day," Cash sings in his signature song, "Man in Black." "And tell the world that everything's okay. But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back. Till things are brighter, I'm the man in black."
We can only hope that Cash is finally in that "better place" he sang about with such conviction -- wearing a coat of many colors.